With just two weeks until Town Meeting, the stage has been set for a showdown between voters in Dracut who are willing to pay an average of $279 more in their annual property taxes to boost the School Department budget and those who think local educators should make ends meet without a tax hike.
In this fiscally conservative town, proponents of a $2.9 million override proposed by School Committee members Daniel O’Connell and Joseph Wilkie are optimistic about their chances of persuading voters to permanently raise their taxes for the benefit of the schools.
Advocates are quick to note that Dracut voters have twice in the past two years approved debt exclusions, or temporary tax increases, to fund school construction projects: the town’s share of a $65 million upgrade of Greater Lowell Technical High School and a $59.96 million renovation of Dracut High School.
“So many people came out in support of those projects,” said Michele Green of Stand Up for Dracut, a committee formed earlier this month to support the override.
“Those projects passed by a margin of 2 to 1, so we’re cautiously optimistic that voters will support an override to increase education funding.”
An override of Proposition 2½, the state tax-cap law, would require voter approval at Town Meeting on June 3 and in a special town election that Dracut officials said would likely be held June 25.
That is the day Massachusetts voters decide who will fill the Senate seat vacated earlier this year by John Kerry, who left Congress to become secretary of state.
To drum up support, Stand Up for Dracut is scheduled to hold an informational session at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Harmony Hall, 1660 Lakeview Ave.
Green said leaders of the grass-roots group will explain why they are pressing for a tax increase that would boost the annual property tax bill on the average single-family home in Dracut, assessed at $268,199 — which is currently $3,698 — by about $279.
Michael F. McNamara, the chairman of the School Committee, said the added tax revenue would help pay for technology upgrades; restore positions lost to budget cuts in prior years; and cover the gap between the School Committee’s $29.7 million spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year — which calls for a $1.4 million increase — and the $392,500 boost that town officials are proposing.
“If the override does not pass, I’ll have to cut about $1 million from the budget,” said Dracut School Superintendent Steven Stone, who assumed leadership of the 3,872-student school system on Aug. 1, 2012, just two months after his predecessor eliminated 54 positions, including 21 classroom teachers, or nearly 10 percent of the district’s teaching staff.
“We are at a crossroad,” Stone said. “The significant cuts of last year have left us with precious little to cut without affecting our classrooms. Sports are on the line.”
“We have a very tight budget,” said Town Manager Dennis E. Piendak. “There’s not a whole lot of revenue to deal with all of the town’s competing needs. We’re heavily dependent on state aid, and in recent years, that aid has declined. We are getting $68,545 less in state aid this fiscal year than we did five years ago.”
The losses are expected to climb in fiscal 2014, which begins July 1. In addition, a growing number of students are leaving the town’s public schools. For the upcoming school year, more Dracut students are expected to attend local charter schools, Essex Agricultural and Technical High School, or public schools in other districts via the school choice program, causing an outflow of $1.55 million to pay out-of-district tuitions, according to the state Department of Revenue. The outlay for the current fiscal year is $844,835.
Garnering enough support to pass a $2.9 million override is likely to be challenging. Homeowners already are paying higher property taxes to finance the town’s new police station and a library addition. Soon, they will also have to make payments on the two high school projects that were approved in 2011 and 2012.
If it is approved by voters, the annual property tax bill on the average single-family home would increase by $72. The bulk of the new tax revenue — $550,000 — would be earmarked for the schools and the remaining $200,000 would be distributed among the town’s other departments, Piendak said. Concerned that a majority of voters won’t embrace higher taxes to support the town’s operational costs — Dracut voters rejected such override requests in 1990 and 1992 — Sheehan has devised a way to soften the impact of the tax hike. He is asking Town Meeting to repeal the Community Preservation Act, which was adopted in 2001 and allows the town to impose a 2 percent property tax surcharge to fund protection of open spaces, historic resources, and affordable housing. Today, that surcharge generates about $700,000 annually, Sheehan said.
Even the five-member School Committee has been unable to agree on the best solution to the district’s fiscal woes.
Matthew Sheehan, who has served on the committee since 2008, favors a smaller, $750,000 override that Piendak plans to propose during Town Meeting. That proposal will be introduced as a budget amendment, Piendak said.
“If voters approved a $750,000 override and at the same time eliminated the community preservation tax, it would be a wash,” Sheehan said.
A proposal submitted by Dracut resident Rich Cowan could force the town to change the way it calculates the amount it spends on education. Under state law, every community must meet minimum school spending requirements. Over the past nine years, Dracut has exceeded those requirements by less than 1 percent on average, Cowan said.
He would like the town to consider ending its longstanding practice of including the cost of retired school employee health benefits — which is more than $1.9 million — in its school spending calculations.
Eliminating those items from the school spending calculations could result in a windfall for Dracut’s schools, since the town would have to allocate more money to the district to meet minimum funding requirements. However, that windfall would come at the expense of other departments.
“I just don’t know how the town would pay for it,” said Sheehan.